Lancashire cricket ace defying the odds

Despite the odds being heavily stacked against him, 17-year-old Jonathan ‘Jonny’ Tiley refused to let having cerebral palsy get in his way of playing the sport he loves and now he’s going to be training with Lancashire

Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 5:35 pm
Jonny Tiley recovering from surgery

“It’s the only time I feel equal to everyone else. For a short time, when I’m on that pitch, nobody gives me special treatment. And that’s the way I want it to be.”

Like many teenage boys and girls, Jonathan Tiley is obsessed with sport. Cricket and football are his main loves, but it is the game of cricket that he is making strides in.

Jonny currently plays for Mawdesley Cricket Club in the Palace Shield Cricket League. He was close to breaking into their senior men’s sides this season before coronavirus hit, and devastated every sport.

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Jonny Tilley, left, in action

A promising off-spinner, the 17-year-old had been invited to train with Lancashire County Cricket Club last winter and hoped to gain recognition there over the next few seasons.

What sets Jonny’s story apart from the majority of other sportspeople are the challenges he has overcome to reach this stage.

Born with cerebral palsy, Jonny’s lower limbs and left side have severe movement and coordination limitations. The result is a dominant right side which means gripping the bat with his top left hand (he is a right-hand batsman) is extremely difficult.

Unable to walk without crutches until he was 11, Jonny’s earliest sporting memories are of bowling to his dad and brothers in a wheelchair in the garden, or batting on his knees.

Jonny Tiley at Old Trafford

Jonny described the frustration of not partaking as he would like was excruciating, and jealousy would kick in frequently.

The summer of 2013 marked a change for Jonny, as he underwent a series of operations to be able to walk and move unaided. This list of procedures is frighteningly long.

Jonny’s femurs were broken and reset, his kneecaps twisted and moved into the correct position, his Achilles were released, and his hamstrings lengthened to the correct size.

His legs are now held together by plates and wires. Botox has since been pumped into his arms four times, in an attempt to give him more elasticity and movement.

Jonny Tiley, fourth left standing, with his Mawdesley Cricket Club team mates

It would still be over a year before he could walk unassisted, and the pain as his legs began to set in place was indescribable. The list continues to this day, as he regularly attends the hospital for further check-ups and smaller procedures.

The initial process took more than six months, and a total of 18 hours’ operating time. It was one of the first of its kind in the UK, and more than 10 research reports have been written on the process and his subsequent recovery.

Doctors informed him it would still be very unlikely that he would ever be able to play sport. His progress and the bar he has set since has been nothing short of miraculous.

After a year of grueling rehab, Jonny was in a different place. Now able to walk more freely, or with the help of his walker, he was starting to enjoy cricket more and found he could partake more easily in the back garden games.

Jonny Tiley recovering from surgery

However, he would still be confined to his wheelchair by the evening. Walking for extended periods of time was a tiring act and running was impossible. His dad, Patrick, introduced him to Mawdesley CC, the closest team to his Chorley home with a dedicated coaching section for disabled cricketers.

Jonny is classed as a level three disability, with one being the least affected and four the most. Due to his movement issues, it would still be challenging for him to play against disabled players of a lesser graded level. However, his cricket skills impressed the coaches enough to put him in the club’s able-bodied under-11s team, and he is yet to play a competitive game against other disabled players.

Indeed, he would spend days at school in his wheelchair or with his walker in a bid to be fresh and conserve his energy for cricket in the evening. At first, Jonny admits it was impossible for him to adapt to the pace of the game. He would struggle to hit the ball while batting, and his off spinners could barely reach the other end.

Like many children, he was still building up the power to be able to play the game. Jonny also had the added challenge of finding a style to get around the obstacles he faced. To this day he still bowls with no run-up, although he is working on potentially bringing one in. His power is generated from his upper body and wrist, and for his quicker ball he has to be careful not to bend his elbow too much.

Batting is a different challenge entirely, and Jonny admits this is a work in progress. He struggles to balance when playing shots. Generating power in his shots is also hard, as he can’t move his legs into position freely.

When he trained with the Lancashire Disabled Team last winter, the coaches opened his stance and he developed a trigger movement, to try to get more power back into the ball.

For fielding, he generally stops the ball with his feet, which any cricketer will tell you is a painful thing to do. It’s one of the many little sacrifices he must make.

Through sheer perseverance and willpower, bowling has been the part of his game he has been able to adapt to. He took his first wicket in the under-13s, a year after he started playing.

The mobbing from his teammates and the outpouring of emotion is something he will never forget. Incredibly, only two seasons into his short career, he was named bowler of the year for his under-13s team. His stock delivery has developed into a genuine off-spinner, and he can get enough revs on the ball to get it to spin.

He has impressed his coaches enough to be named captain for his under-13s team and the under-15s team since. From the beginning, he has kept a diary of all his games, and has diagrams and field settings set out for certain batsmen he comes up against.

The attention to detail is incredible, and it is easy to see why is he is enjoying success. Although his body may not be able to do the same things as other players, the beauty of the game allows people to be outwitted as well as outfought.

Jonny admits to playing the game hard, and isn’t opposed to giving the opposition a word or two either. His first catch is his favourite moment in cricket, against a team he exclaimed. “I can’t stand, they act like they own the place!”

After a firm drive was hit off his own bowling, he caught it to his left, falling over in the process, but determined not to drop the ball when his elbows hit the ground. It went against all the doctors’ advice – he has been warned not to dive on to his legs – but there was no stopping him at this moment. Once cricket resumes, Jonny will enter into senior cricket, representing a whole different challenge to the juniors.

Jonny says, “In the modern world, there are more opportunities for disabled sports players, and it is a strong possibility that I may able to tour other countries playing the sport I love.

“Originally it was about taking part, but I now feel I can contribute to winning games and I belong on the pitch alongside both able-bodied and disabled players. Sport is the one place as a disabled person I don’t feel judged or treated differently, and nor do I want to be. No quarter is given and none is expected in return.”

Martin Lewis, under-15s coach at Mawdesley CC, says, “He’s keen, enthusiastic and an absolute pleasure to coach. His knowledge of cricket is second to none, and we were blown away by his attitude when we made him captain.

“He read the Art of Captaincy by Mike Brearley in a week before the first game, and his team talks before games were legendary. I was standing at the umpires’s end when he took an amazing catch of his bowling, after the ball was hit hard back towards him. He then took off on a lap of honour with his teammates, and the sight was something to behold.”

Chris Hiley, under-13s, coach at Mawdesley CC, agrees, “I coached Jonny for two years, after he broke into the under-13 team. It was fantastic to see his development over that period, but even from the start he was an ideal team player, perfect to coach and a great thinker of the game. He is very knowledgeable about cricket, including the history of the game, which is a rare for a young player.

“His bowling has always been good, and he was the most steady and accurate bowler within the team. He ties batsmen down well, and rarely bowls any loose balls. He has worked a method out with batting, and even though he is limited, he can find ways to score runs. With captaincy, he is a natural, and is forever spotting things in the field that other players don’t pick up.

“He has a very advanced cricket brain for someone of a young age. The team look up to him and he is a source of inspiration for the other players. He is a wonderful motivator and leader, and it is rare to have someone like that within your team.”